By Cain Hayes
When I was 19 years old, I set a bold goal: I was going to be a CEO of a multibillion-dollar company. As a college sophomore, I didn’t know what type of company or even what industry, but my brilliant, single mother had instilled in me a love of learning and the importance of having specific goals and a deliberate plan to achieve them. Fortunately, I was blessed to have plenty of opportunities ahead of me after graduating from Drake University. While I spent the first 20 years of my career in financial services at Principal Financial Group and Nationwide, I found my true passion years later in healthcare. But the lessons I learned in the financial sector played an important role in shaping the way I think about health.
In 2009, I was head of operations for the institutional retirement business at Principal Financial Group. In my role, I oversaw the accounts of millions of our customers. While there were people who had millions in their 401Ks, the average was only $40,000. Often, I would learn that this balance reflected their entire savings. Considering the average hospital stay could cost $15,000, a negative health event could potentially wipe out those savings. This insight became a harsh reality for me given, around the same time, three of my best childhood friends lost their parents in a short period of time. The root cause for each death was not only deteriorating physical health, but also suboptimal financial health. One thing became abundantly clear to me: healthy finances lead to healthier people.
Financial health involves a number of different factors. It’s more than just the balance of your bank account. Financial literacy, which is the set of skills and knowledge that enables you to make informed decisions about your financial resources, is a key component. Understanding how to manage your credit and debt are skills that are vital to our wellbeing, and without it, people can become overly vulnerable to the unexpected.
In addition to better understanding your finances, your financial health depends on access to both education and job opportunities. Education is often referred to as the great equalizer as it leads to the kind of jobs, resources, and skill development that people need to thrive. In fact, access to high-quality primary education is a globally-recognized solution to the cycle of poverty because it also addresses issues that keep entire communities vulnerable.
Many Americans struggle to achieve financial health, and much of the blame falls on the healthcare system. Since 2013, financial preparedness has decreased drastically—44% of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $400 emergency and 21% aren’t saving any money at all. Those who are not financially prepared for a medical emergency are often forced to delay treatment. To avoid the high cost of care, nearly 18% of chronically ill Americans underuse their medications and postpone or ignore therapeutic recommendations. They also run the risk of falling into debt and even bankruptcy. This can unfortunately kick off a vicious and tragic cycle of poverty and declining health.
This is especially true for Black Americans, who face both a racial wealth gap and racial health disparity. Systemic oppression has prevented us from accumulating generational wealth and restricted social, educational, and professional opportunities. As a result, the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family. Without question, these circumstances are inextricably linked to our overall health, as the CDC reports that Blacks in their 20s, 30s and 40s are more likely to live with or die from conditions that typically occur at older ages in Whites.
This kind of disparity is why I shifted my career to healthcare and why I am a strong proponent of health equity—the idea that everyone should have a fair and just opportunity to be the healthiest they can be. I see it as my responsibility to be an advocate within the healthcare system to challenge inherited biases and promote inclusive care that is accessible for all. Imagine if the healthcare industry stretched beyond simply caring for your physical health and offered more opportunities to help you better understand your finances. We could reduce healthcare costs significantly for everyone.
A year ago, I joined Gateway Health as its President and CEO.
Gateway is a multibillion-dollar managed care organization that has served the most vulnerable and low income people in Pennsylvania for the past 27 years. It is my mission to make sure our programs and plan benefits incorporate the total health of our members, helping them break down barriers to good health and supporting them on their journey to better outcomes.
This includes connecting people with the resources in their local communities that foster financial empowerment and provide access to critical support systems. For example, we assist our members in obtaining their GEDs by coordinating with community colleges for preparation classes and paying for the exam. We also offer opportunities for meaningful employment in our local offices, give tours of our call center, assist with resume writing, and conduct mock interviews to help our members prepare for employment. We’ve even gone so far as to ensure that the minimum wage for Gateway employees is $15 per hour, which is more than double the state minimum.
While I am proud of this work, I know it’s just a start and there is much more we can and should be doing to increase financial literacy and help lift our members out of poverty.
Poor financial health is a silent disease that remains untreated, especially in communities of color. If healthcare organizations around the country invest in addressing more than just physical illnesses and incorporate our total health – financial, mental, emotional, social – then we can finally make meaningful progress toward eradicating poverty and creating healthy communities.